News Room

ELC Testimony to the Basic Education Funding Commission

Oct. 21, 2014 – Pittsburgh | Good afternoon, my name is Cheryl Kleiman and I am a staff attorney with the Education Law Center in Pittsburgh. I appreciate the opportunity to appear in front of the Basic Education Funding Commission on behalf of the parents, students, and stakeholders we serve.

The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania (ELC) has a long history of advocating for fair education funding.  Since 1975, ELC has worked to ensure that all of Pennsylvania’s children have access to quality public education, especially our most vulnerable, and often most costly, students – poor children, children of color, children with disabilities, English language learners “ELLs”, children who are homeless or in foster care, and LGBTQ students.  Our strategies include not only traditional legal representation, but also system-wide advocacy for better laws and policies in Pennsylvania and nationally.

We are here because we represent hundreds of families impacted by school funding each year.  I want to share just one of their stories – it is a reality echoed by many.

Earlier this year, we worked with Tonya, a parent who has two children in the Sto-Rox School District.  Her son, Brandon, is a third grader who is struggling with reading.  Like most districts, Sto-Rox had tutoring and after-school programs to help struggling students like Brandon. But funding cuts have meant a reduction and, in some cases, an elimination of tutoring and after-school programs. Compounding the problem, Brandon’s classroom does not have any reading materials at his level and he is forced to bring books from home.

As you can imagine, struggling with reading makes the rest of school that much harder and can be deeply discouraging for our youngest students. What helped Brandon was art instruction— a subject he enjoyed and excelled at. Now, however, funding cuts have reduced Brandon’s art classes and his grades have begun to falter.

Tonya worries about how budget cuts will impact all of her children in the district. With crumbling infrastructure, outdated textbooks, and limited exposure to foreign languages, arts, and athletics even in high school – she is questioning if her children will get the help and resources they need to pursue their academic interests.

The story of Brandon and Tonya illustrate clearly the issue we’re confronting: Our students lack basic educational elements — textbooks, science labs, art classes, tutoring supports — that provide them with opportunities to learn and succeed in school. These are not extras — these are basic elements of a quality education that should be available to all of our public school students — not merely those who happen to live in the right zip code.

The cuts in education funding and elimination of the funding formula have real, devastating impacts on students’ educational outcomes. Brandon is not an anomaly, he represents hundreds of thousands of students throughout the Commonwealth. Put simply, since 2011, students all across Pennsylvania have lacked the basic resources, supports, and services they need to succeed in the classroom.

A recent study conducted by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (“PSEA”) found that PSSA reading and math scores in grades 3-6 declined across all school districts following the budget cuts in 2011-2012.   The decline was steepest among the most impoverished districts because “the poorest districts are the most reliant on state funding and have the least ability to replace it.[1]

Many of those districts are also disproportionally serving educationally at-risk students – the vast majority do not meet the proficiency level on state-wide assessments.

In 2011-2012, only 17.9% of ELLs scored “proficient” or above in reading (compared with 23.8% in 2010-11) and only 35% scored proficient in math (compared with 41.9% in 2010-11).[2]

These poor performance numbers demonstrate that hundreds of thousands of children from across the Commonwealth and in school districts of all sizes are not obtaining the skills necessary to participate in our economic, social and civic life.

Fortunately, research shows that state finance reforms can have substantial positive effects on student outcomes, including increases in overall achievement levels and a reduction in achievement gaps.[3]

It’s important — as we’ve heard from all of today’s speakers — to examine existing research and data as we work to fix our state’s school funding system. But it’s equally important to remind all of the Commission members that there are people behind those numbers — parents, like Tonya, and students like Brandon— who are impacted every day by our currently broken system.
[1] See Pennsylvania State Education Association, Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence, 8, Aug. 15, 2014
[2] See http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/news_and_media/7234/p/1237291
[3] See American Institutes for Research, Educational equity, adequacy, and equal opportunity in the Commonwealth: An Evaluation of Pennsylvania’s School Finance System, October 2014.

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